Athanasius Kircher

A 17th century German Jesuit scholar who published around 40 works, most notably in the fields of oriental studies, geology, and medicine.

At Heiligenstadt, he taught mathematics, Hebrew and Syriac, and produced a show of fireworks and moving scenery for the visiting Elector Archbishop of Mainz, showing early evidence of his interest in mechanical devices.

He amassed a collection of antiquities, which he exhibited along with devices of his own creation in the Museum Kircherianum.

Ars Magna Lucis et Umbrae (1646): optics, catoptics, dioptrics, camera obscura, magic mirrors, moving shadows, projection of secret writing, a "catotrophic lamp" that used reflection to project images on the wall of a darkened room. He did not invent the magic lantern but made improvements over previous models, and suggested methods by which exhibitors could use it.

The Musurgia Universalis (1650) sets out Kircher's views on music: he believed that the harmony of music reflected the proportions of the universe. The book includes plans for constructing water-powered automatic organs, notations of birdsong and diagrams of musical instruments.

Phonurgia Nova (1673): considered the possibilities of transmitting music to remote places.

Kircher designed an aeolian harp, automatons such as a statue which spoke and listened via a speaking tube, a perpetual motion machine, and a Katzenklavier ("cat piano"). This last of these would have driven spikes into the tails of cats, which would yowl to specified pitches, although Kircher is not known to have actually constructed the instrument.

Much of the significance of his work arises from Kircher's rational approach towards the demystification of projected images. Previously such images had been used in Europe to mimic supernatural appearances. Kircher cites the use of displayed images by the rabbis in the court of King Solomon. Kircher stressed that exhibitors should take great care to inform spectators that such images were purely naturalistic, and not magical in origin.

Although Kircher's work was not mathematically based, he did develop various systems for generating and counting all combinations of a finite collection of objects (i.e. a finite set). His methods and diagrams are discussed in Ars Magna Sciendi, sive Combinatoria.

Kircher's body is buried in Rome. His heart is buried three hours away, at a shrine for St. Eustace (which he founded).

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